51 – SLAVE REPARATIONS: AN ABSURDITY?

I have spent the last year doing a lot of historical research on slavery for my new novel “White Slaves” (390 pages) which will be published early next year. This has led me to believe that slavery is endemic to humankind just like prostitution. We have all heard about the transatlantic slave trade, which saw black Africans snatched from their homes and sold into slavery in the Americas. But slavery didn’t start there. It was with us in Greek and Roman times, in the horn of Africa, and is still active today.

In recent weeks the President of Ghana, Akufo-Addo, has demanded reparations from the European nations for the slave trade that damaged his country in the past. It is estimated there were some 10-12 million black African slaves who were victims of the transatlantic slave trade. The Ghanaian president said in his press release that the legacy of slavery has been “devastating” to the continent and the diaspora which tampered with “Africa’s economic, cultural and psychological progress”. This follows demands for reparations from various Caribbean nations (Grenada, Antigua, Barbuda and Jamaica) and, of course, those of Black and Native Americans.

George Floyd’s death in the US has pushed racial injustice and demands for reparations to the top of the agenda among Black Americans. The cost of reparations has been estimated to be between 10 and 12 trillion dollars, a huge amount when the total US debt is around 26 trillion dollars. Are slave reparations justified?

A lot of people think so, but it is highly unlikely the US government will ever agree to such a demand. The amount is way too high to be considered seriously by any government, and perhaps it is an impossible task even to imagine repairing the harm caused by slavery in the world. Let’s look at some historical facts about slavery.

When the ancient Britons were invaded by the Saxons in the 5th century, the Saxons would systematically kill all the male Britons they encountered and then enslave their women and children. Later in the 9th century, when the Saxons in their turn were invaded by the Danes, the Danes returned the favour, killing all the Saxon menfolk and enslaving their women and children. The Scots, the Welsh and the Irish all operated under the same reasoning. The best way to eliminate an enemy in those brutish times was to kill the men and enslave the women and children. Slaves were a hot commodity and could be turned into ready money in slave markets across the British Isles, Ireland, France, and Holland. Later in the 14th century, during the Hundred Years’ war between England and France, English soldiers plundered the French countryside in their chevauchées reducing the population to starvation and slavery. They would ride into a village and kill all the menfolk, before stealing anything that was not nailed down and raping the women, who were then forced into slavery with their children.

Later in the 16th century, whole villages in England, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain and even Iceland were depopulated by corsair slavers from the Barbary Coast. The corsairs would sail along the coast capturing men, women and children who were sold in the slave markets of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. It is estimated that there were over a million Christian slaves sold into slavery in North Africa. So it is not surprising that when the Portuguese and the Spanish discovered a market for African slaves in the West Indies, Brazil and the United States, the British and the Dutch were quick to take part.

We haven’t mentioned, of course, that slavery in Africa dates back to ancient Egypt. The trans-Saharan slave trade operated out of Ghana, Mali and Central Africa. The slaves were transported along trade routes across the Sahara to be sold in the Middle East and as far as the horn of Africa. Some 11-17 million slaves were removed from their homeland from the 7th to the 20th century. In the Americas, slavery was practiced by the Aztecs, the Mayans and the Incas, and

later by many Native American tribes such as the Iroquois, Commanche, Pawnee, Creek, Blackfoot, Haida and Tlingit. And, of course, we must not forget the Maori of New Zealand who are well known to have enslaved their enemies.

One can conclude from all this that the president of Ghana is being rather hypocritical in demanding reparations for Ghana when his own country was involved in slavery long before Western Europe showed any interest in Africa. Today, after our long history of slavery, the payment of any kind of reparation for slavery seems to be quite absurd. Should the ancient Britons have the right to demand reparations from the Saxons and the Danes and what about the white Christian slaves of North Africa? There is no limit to the number of people who would come out of the woodwork to demand reparations for slavery around the world.

The White Slave Trade of Africa

50 – THE ATTACK ON LITHUANIA

My original intention this week was to talk about the Domesday book and how William the Conqueror surveyed much of England and parts of Wales back to 1085. What an incredible document from Norman times and what a huge influence it had. Unfortunately, my attention this week got off track with the developing story about Kaliningrad.

In my April 9 blog, I mentioned that Kaliningrad and the Suwalki Gap were going to be the next theatre of war in Europe. I mentioned an attack before the US midterms in November. There are more and more reasons to believe this. The Russians are talking about a blockade of Kaliningrad by the Lithuanians who are simply applying the EU sanctions on Russia. They don’t allow certain items to travel through Lithuania by train to the Kaliningrad enclave. In addition, this week Putin announced that he is sending Iskander-M nuclear-capable missiles to his neighbour Belarus. Is this to threaten Ukraine or could it be a threat to Lithuania? Where is all this going to lead to?

Clearly, Putin and the Russian military are planning something. Will the blockade of Kaliningrad provide him with sufficient justification to attack Lithuania? The capital Vilnius is just 35 kilometres from the Russian border and 185 kilometres from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Russia with the help of Belarus can seize Lithuania in less than 48 hours by attacking Vilnius from the East and joining up with Russian soldiers in Kaliningrad in the West. Lithuania will be a walk in the park for Russian soldiers. They don’t have the military experience of the Ukrainians after eight years of war.

Who will stop the Russians? Nobody. NATO is an empty shell full of talking heads and no action. The last time NATO launched a significant military operation was the air bombing campaign in Kosovo/Serbia. They certainly don’t know how to coordinate multinational military forces in a WW2 style campaign. It’s all empty talk at NATO. Of course, no one in the EU believes war will actually happen. The only exception in Europe is Boris Johnson and the UK. Putin knows this. He knows that NATO is weak and so he will grab Lithuania whenever he wants and then go after Estonia and Latvia.

How will he do it? Remember those unidentified green men in Crimea. They were Russian Spetsnaz forces and they took the country without firing a shot. They seize territory and then claim it was all justified. It will be a fait accompli by the time NATO wakes up. Putin will say that Lithuanian Nazis are terrorizing the Russian-speaking population in Lithuania (5% of the population) and operating a blockade of Kaliningrad.

The time to strike for NATO is now before the Russians get their act together. Seize Kaliningrad and its port. Cut them off entirely from the land. Send in Polish or Lithuanian green men to seize the enclave and then pressure the Russians to leave their Baltic port. Putin would be totally enraged by such an action, but he would immediately understand that NATO was no longer a joke and would stop bullying his neighbours. Putin understands force, that’s all he understands.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that NATO will do anything since there is absolutely no will in Europe or in the US for a war with Russia. And the response of the immensely rich democracies of France and Germany will be to let Putin have those Baltic countries if war can be avoided. So Lithuania will become another casualty of Russian aggression and will be conveniently ignored.

49 – THE FORLORN HOPE

If you have been reading Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, then you will remember the Forlorn Hope at the 1812 Siege of Badajoz during Britain’s Peninsular war against Napoleon. Badajoz was an impregnable Spanish fortress defended by a large French force. The siege was one of the bloodiest during the Napoleonic War and the casualties numbered 4,800 Anglo-Portuguese soldiers killed or wounded in a few short hours of intense fighting. And who did Wellington, the allied commander, use to attack the breaches? The Forlorn Hope, of course. They were always the first men in any suicidal assault on the breached walls.

Siege of Badajoz by R.Caton Woodville

What a wonderful name for a hopeless and insanely dangerous enterprise! The Forlorn Hope was made up entirely of volunteers. They were the vanguard in all extremely dangerous military operations. The Forlorn Hope was responsible for drawing the defenders’ fire and forcing the enemy to spring their carefully prepared explosive traps. The chances of survival in this kind of work were minimal at best.

Why would someone volunteer for such dangerous work? For promotions, bonuses and for fame. In the British army, the lieutenant who commanded the Forlorn Hope would be instantly promoted to captain, a sergeant to ensign and so on. The men who survived these suicidal assaults became famous among their comrades and much envied by lesser men. In the ranks of British riflemen, they often wore a laurel-wreath badge on their sleeve to mark their courage.

The army didn’t care much about their promises of promotion, because they rarely had to honour their commitments, so few men survived. Still, there was never a lack of volunteers for the Forlorn Hope. The term first appeared in the 1500s and came from the Dutch expression “verloren hoop“, which means an expendable squad of soldiers. In the French army, the Forlorn Hope were known as “les enfants perdus” and in the German army “Der verlorene haufen” meaning the lost children or lost troops.

In English, the Forlorn Hope was any desperate undertaking with little chance of success. Although it was likely that most of the men would be killed in the first few seconds of the assault, some were expected to survive long enough to gain a foothold in the enemy defenses that could be reinforced by the first wave of regular troops. The Forlorn Hope was sacrificed to reduce the loss of life among the most precious regiments in a military attack. Forlorn Hopes were led by ambitious junior officers hoping for advancement and sometimes even conscripted criminals were recruited for the Forlorn Hope.

It is hard to believe today that volunteers could be found to fight against the enemy when the odds of survival were so slim but back in those days there were more than enough volunteers. In a way, the Forlorn Hope was a reflection of society. Back in the days of muskets and bayonets, war heroes were celebrated everywhere. They were the brave men who had sacrificed so much for their country and society owed them. Even today, people love their war heroes and celebrate them.

The existence of the Forlorn Hope tells us a lot about our young men today who all believe they are immortal and will live forever. You see it in combat, in punishing physical sports and dangerous pastimes. Chance is on their side. They all want to be heroes.

48 – NEW TARGET FOR RUSSIA: THE SUWALKI GAP

NEW TARGET FOR RUSSIA: THE SUWALKI GAP

If you look at the map of Eastern Europe, you will start wondering what the Kalingrad Oblast region is all about. Remember that Germany was forced to give up Kaliningrad to Stalin at the 1945 Potsdam Agreement. This land used to be German Konigsberg. It is situated between Lithuania on the East and Poland in the West. With the new economic sanctions, the Kaliningrad enclave is almost totally cut off from the rest of Europe with no land link with Russia. Now look just east of Kalingrad and you see a 100 km border between Poland and Lithuania which is called the Suwalki Gap (named after the town of Suwalki). It is a narrow piece of land between Kalingrad and Belarus.

The Kalingrad enclave became separated from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with the emergence of the new independent countries of Lithuania and Belarus (a Russian satellite country). The Suwalki Gap is a major military problem for NATO. It is the only land passage for supplies to the Baltic countries from Poland and the West. Furthermore, Kalingrad is a major Russian port with thousands of Russian troops, advanced fighter jets and nuclear weapons. A Russian move to seize control of the Suwalki corridor would be a major threat to the Baltic countries.

NATO knows that this is their weakest link. Putin knows this and will try to exploit this weakness over the next few months. How will this go down? Remember how Russia took control of Crimea. Russian tanks will sweep across the Suwalki corridor from Kalingrad and from Belarus simultaneously, and within days the Baltic countries will be cut off from the rest of NATO. This is the nightmare scenario for the West.

To justify this kind of action, nothing could be simpler. Putin will say that Lithuanian Nazis are terrorizing the Russian-speaking population in Lithuania. The Russian troops can go through Lithuania and avoid Polish territory entirely. Russians are the second-largest ethnic minority (5%) in the country after Poles and they often feel discriminated against when speaking Lithuanian. There are even more ethnic Russians in Estonia (26%) and Latvia (25%). So the first step of the Russian propaganda machine will be to say that their troops are protecting the Russian-speaking areas of Lithuania by seizing the southern tip of Lithuania. Putin’s next step would be to seize a slice of Estonian and Latvian land in the East.

When will this happen? I have been looking into my crystal ball and I hereby announce that the attack will happen this year just before the US midterm elections and the World Cup. It will be a huge setback for President Biden who has promised not to go to war with Russia, and to NATO who will be facing a fait accompli. Biden and NATO will do nothing. They fear war with Russia more than Russia fears war with them. They will talk about sanctions and on it will go. The attack on Lithuania will be mounted in complete secrecy. Russian soldiers are already in Belarus. They would be easy to divert from Ukraine to the northern border area. The troops in Kalingrad could be operational within hours. The whole operation would be complete in just a few days.

From a military point of view, it makes absolutely no sense in leaving Kalingrad in Russian hands. I think NATO, Lithuania or Poland should immediately launch a secret attack against Kalingrad and its port. It could be done by sending in soldiers dressed in Ukrainian uniforms with the flag on display. Zelensky could do a press conference about his Ukrainian soldiers attacking Kalingrad. This would send a very strong message to Putin. There are one million people living there who are completely cut off from Russia and these people would benefit immensely from a land link to Poland and the west.

 

 

 

47 – Princess Louise & The Secret Grandson of Queen Victoria

Did you know that the secret grandson of Queen Victoria was found dead next to the train tracks in Montreal West on December 10, 1907? Henry Locock was a 39-year-old British army officer on his way to Kelowna, BC to meet his birth father, Walter Stirling, tutor to Princess Louise when she was only 19 years old. Stirling had a fling with Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s sixth child of nine children. Henry Locock firmly believed Stirling to be his real father. He had been adopted in 1867 by Dr Charles Locock, Queen Victoria’s accoucher or gynecologist. Princess Louise had given up the child to avoid a scandal before she married the Marquess of Lorne, who was later posted to Canada as Governor General.

Henry Locock

Henry’s grandson, Nick Locock, tried to exhume his grandfather’s body buried in a Kent churchyard for a DNA test in 2004 to prove that Henry was indeed related to Queen Victoria, but a judge under pressure from the Royal Family refused the request. The DNA results of the grandfather would have been compared to the readily available DNA of the nine skeletons found in a shallow grave in Russia, including those of Alexandra, the Tsarina of Russia, a daughter to Princess Alice and a granddaughter to Queen Victoria.

What an incredible story this is. I have just finished reading “The Mystery of Princess Louise”, Queen Victoria’s rebellious daughter by Lucinda Hawksley. This is an excellent biography of that wonderful woman who charmed Canadians when she came to Canada in 1878 with her husband, the Marquess of Lorne. Louise was the poster girl for Queen Victoria’s family after the death of Prince Albert. She was the prettiest daughter, the artist in the family, and everyone’s favourite aunt in the Royal Family. She was trilingual and spoke English, French and German. She was a professional artist and sculptor, and she dressed in a pre-Raphaelite style that was fashionable in a way that none of the other princesses were.

Lucinda Hawksley describes the princess: “Louise was a powerful voice for women of her generation. She was a princess who sought not to be ‘royal’, a Victorian woman who strove to break into a masculine world, and a fiery, intriguing, often confusing personality. She challenges many preconceptions what we, in the twenty-first century, have of women who lived under the long reign of Princess Louise’s formidable and – it has to be admitted – often extremely unpleasant mother.”

Hawksley’s book tells the tale of her illegitimate son Henry born out of wedlock when she was just 19 years old. It tells the tale of Louise’s long term love affair with the Austrian sculptor Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm and his death in her arms as they were having sex and how her presence in Boehm’s studio was covered up in the press. It tells the tale of Louise’s unhappy marriage to Lorne who was a commoner and a promiscuous homosexual from his days at Eton College. It tells the tale of Canada’s love affair with Princess Louise and how the province of Alberta (Louise Caroline Alberta), Lake Louise, the Louise Embankment in Quebec City and along with various regiments are all named after her. Princess Louise and her husband were responsible for launching the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts and the National Gallery of Canada in 1880.

Hawksley’s research is very thorough and her talent for getting to the truth through the maze of contradictions is quite remarkable. She has been criticized in the press for going too far in her speculations about Princess Louise’s sex life, but I found her sifting of the evidence in the numerous letters that were exchanged at the time quite convincing. Of course, none of this can be proved, but it is important for historians to go beyond the official version of events and get a feel for how things really were in Victorian England. Princess Louise was a woman ahead of her times. She was a champion of women’s and children’s rights long before the most famous suffragists made the cause fashionable. She insisted that boys and girls should be treated equally and worked tirelessly for the creation of better run hospitals and schools.

Marquess of Lorne & Princess Louise, 1889

46 – Let’s level the playing field for Ukraine

*This post was written a couple days before the shelling of the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant.

In recent days we have all had a chance to hear Ms Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre who grew up in Kyiv, berate Boris Johnson, Olaf Scholz, Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden. This wonderful woman ridicules all the NATO countries for doing next to nothing to help the Ukrainians fight their war with Russia. It was refreshing to hear her question to Boris Johnson:  “You’re coming to Poland, you’re not coming to Kyiv because you are afraid, because NATO is not willing to defend, because NATO is afraid of World War III, but it has already started.” She urged the PM to implement a no-fly-zone over Ukraine to stop Russia’s aerial bombardment of civilians. Johnson listened to her quietly and then told her that enforcing a no-fly-zone would force NATO forces to shoot down Russian planes which would necessarily be the start of a new World War.

There is no question Ms Kaleniuk is right to ask these questions. Are the Western countries doing enough to shield the Ukrainians from a Russian slaughter in the style of Aleppo and Grosny? Will Kyiv be reduced to a pile of rubble at the end of this war? Do we care about our Western democracies enough to want to protect them? Maybe we don’t.

Ms Kaleniuk says that sanctions won’t protect Ukrainians from bombs and probably won’t have any significant effect on Putin and his corrupt government before Kyiv has been reduced to rubble. But there are many creative ways for Western governments to help the Ukrainians without causing World War 3.

Here are a couple:

1- Use Switzerland or Georgia to supply fighter aircraft.

No NATO country can provide direct support to Ukraine for the reasons above. NATO can send in weapons, food and humanitarian support, but that’s it. Switzerland, however, is not a member of NATO and not part of the European Union. It is a rich landlocked country. If Switzerland were to provide the aircraft (borrowed from other EU countries) and provide the training of Ukrainian pilots, then there is no reason why the Ukrainian air force couldn’t borrow these aircraft to fend off Russian attacks from the air and ground. Get the US to lend two F35s, the UK to lend two Eurofighter Typhoons, the Germans two Tornados, and on it goes.

Another candidate for this kind of false flag operation would be Georgia who suffered through a three year civil war in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions against the Russians back in 1991-93. This resulted in the annexation of the two Georgian regions by the Russians just like the 2014 land grab in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.

The strategy here is to supply the Ukrainian air force with fighter jets from a pro-Western third party country so that the EU and NATO can deny being involved.

2- Hire a force of mercenaries to combat the Russians in Ukraine.

I doubt that the Russian mercenaries in Mali (The Wagner Group) would work for Ukraine at any price, but there have been rumours that the Russians will use them to try to kill President Zelensky in Kyiv. The Americans and the British have used mercenaries in the past. Remember ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare in the Congo in the 1960s and Executive Outcomes in South Africa. Mercenaries are often used to back up military forces around the world. These people can be airdropped with powerful firepower behind enemy lines and make a difference.

Wagner Group Mercenaries

Why not use mercenaries just as the Russians are using them? The US and Europe can easily finance this kind of operation from the huge donations they are making to Ukraine. Remember that mercenary groups have no official existence. They are no-name operations and easily deniable. They are perfect for a false flag military operation in Ukraine.

3- Send in an emergency UN force to protect the nuclear reactors.

Ukraine is heavily dependent on nuclear energy. It has 15 reactors generating about half of its electricity. Ukraine receives most of its nuclear services and nuclear fuel from Russia, but is reducing this dependence by buying fuel from Westinghouse. The government is looking to the West for both technology and investment in its nuclear plants. Westinghouse has an agreement to build four AP1000 reactors at established sites.

At the moment there are four sprawling nuclear complexes in Ukraine run by Energoatom. The Russians Ministry of Defence has claimed that they control the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant in the Southeast, but Energoatom says the claim is false. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it was continuing to closely monitor developments in Ukraine, with a special focus on the safety and security of its nuclear power reactors. In a recent update, it said it had been told by Ukraine that missiles had hit the site of a radioactive waste disposal facility in Kyiv, but there were no reports of damage to the building or release of radioactive material.

It seems a no brainer for the IAEA to send in a force of UN troops to protect each of the four Ukrainian nuclear complexes around the country and to monitor the radiation levels in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, now surrounded by Russian forces. Furthermore, the presence of foreign troops in Ukraine will complicate things for the Russians and perhaps prevent a human disaster.

4- Invade Kalingrad Oblast, the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea.

Germany was forced to give up Kaliningrad to Stalin at the 1945 Potsdam Agreement. This land used to be German Konigsberg. This tiny chunk of land is situated between Lithuania on the East and Poland in the West. With the new economic sanctions, the Kaliningrad enclave will be cut off from the rest of Europe and have no land link to Russia. It makes no sense leaving it in Russian hands. There are one million people living there who will be part of the Russian economic collapse.

Let’s take back Kaliningrad Oblast from Russia and at same time divert Russian forces from the Ukraine. To seize Kaliningrad Oblast, a small force of mercenaries would be sufficient to cause immense concern in the Kremlin and, of course, mercenaries are deniable. The Russians love cloak-and-dagger operations like this. Let’s use it against them.

These are the usual tricks of intelligence services. We only have to remember American CIA and French DGSE operations in Africa to know that the suggestions above are feasible, easy to launch and can be organized within days. This may be our last chance to save Ukrainian lives.

Monument to Mercenaries

45 – REMEMBER GUY FAWKES

Don’t you Remember,
The Fifth of November,
‘Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made’em all run.
And Stole all their Bonfire away. (1742)

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated in Great Britain every November 5 with bonfires and fireworks displays. Fawkes and his friends were trying to seize power from King James I to restore a Catholic monarchy in England after decades of intolerance. The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the opening of parliament on November 5, 1605 but an anonymous letter gave away the plan. Fawkes and his co-conspirators were arrested and paid a very high price for their actions. They were hanged, then drawn and quartered. In the past monarchies defended themselves vigorously against plotters and conspirators.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called 2021 “an epidemic of coups d’état”. There were four military takeovers in Africa – Guinea, Sudan, Mali and Chad. On September 5, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya and his soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Conakry, Guinea seizing President Alpha Condé in a coup d’état. Conde had been the first democratically-elected president after decades of authoritarian rule. The same happened in Sudan, Mali and Chad.

But by far, the most surprising attempt at a coup d’état was the one in Washington, DC: the failed January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. It was organized by Trump’s inner circle of Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro supported by a hundred Republican congressmen. “The Green Bay Sweep” as it was called by Navarro in a recent memoir, was a farcical attempt to seize power. The plotters sought to keep Trump in office by blocking the certification of the Electoral College votes in pivotal states.

In a coup d’état the first rule is that you have to seize power using military force, not by selling MAGA hats, speech-making or drawing out the certification procedure on National television. The Trump insurrection failed because it was run by a bunch of power-hungry blowhards and a complete moron of a president. On January 6 Trump was still president of the United States and wielded immense power. After the attack on the Capitol, all he had to do was to declare a national emergency, call out the troops and round up the members of Congress, throwing them in jail for their own protection. This would have immediately put an end to the certification vote that gave Biden authority as the new president. Meanwhile, Trump’s people could have alerted the Republican-controlled state legislatures of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and requested an immediate vote by their legislators in favour of Trump. These new votes would have replaced the first set of electoral college votes sent to Congress. Trumps allies in Congress would then have organized a new certification vote and declared Donald J. a winner.

This is how the 1876 election was stolen from the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden after he won the popular vote against the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. In the first count of votes, Tilden had won 184 electoral votes to Hayes’ 165 with some twenty votes unresolved from three contested states: Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. Hayes’ Republicans went into each state and bribed their way to victory with money from the railroad lobby who had gotten immensely rich under President Grant’s administration. They sent a new set of electoral votes to Washington and Rutherford Hayes became president.

This would certainly have happened on January 6 if Trump and his co-conspirators had understood the meaning of the term ‘seize power’. Seizing power means arresting opposition figures, taking control of television, radio, and newspapers, controlling the message on social media, and installing a lockdown across the country all under the guise of a national emergency. Instead, the hopeless plotters put their faith in an old college football cliché and the hope that the Vice-President Mike Pence would arrange everything and refuse the certification of the electoral college votes. The Green Bay Sweep refers to a football play named after coach Vince Lombardi when a Green Bay running back would pound into the end zone behind a “phalanx of blockers”.

There have been lots of failed coups around the world and the plotters often pay a very high price for their actions. Remember the 2016 attempted coup against President Recep Erdogan and the Turkish state. It was the bloodiest coup attempt in Turkish history and 241 people were killed after the soldiers and tanks took to the streets and fighter jets dropped bombs on the parliament buildings. Ergogan blamed it on his arch enemy Fethullah Gullen and a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces. He quickly declared a state of emergency and arrested thousands of military officials, pilots, police officers, civil servants, academics and even teachers who were sacked from their jobs for alleged links to the “terrorist” plot.

This is what happens when a coup fails. You lock up the conspirators and throw away the key. Recep Erdogan did what any reasonable president would do in the circumstances. He locked up the ringleaders and their supporters, but he went way beyond that. He used the government to crush any opposition to his rule. He destroyed a once great nation by transforming the decades-old parliamentary system into a heavily centralized presidential one. He suppressed core liberties such as the freedom of expression in the media.

No state, not even a democracy, can permit their sworn enemies to return to power. This is why democracy in America is under threat.  No one is willing to defend the Constitution and the right to vote. It is very frustrating to see Trump’s acolytes who ransacked the Capitol on January 6, 2020 serve prison sentences and pay huge fines, while Trump and his political cronies walk away without any charges. Without the arrest and prosecution of the Trump conspirators, US democracy will probably not last another ten years.

44 – THE YEAR IS 1504

The place is the Piazza San Firenze in Florence, Italy. A large crowd is silently gathered looking up in awe at the immense statue of David. It has taken the artist some four years to complete the seventeen foot tall statue, but the result takes your breath away. David stands there naked with his left hand holding a sling on his shoulder while his right hand with its veins visible in the white Carrera marble is down by his side. He is ready to do battle with Goliath. The statue is carved from one huge block of unwanted marble and is 17 feet tall weighing some 12,000 pounds.

Few sculptures are as famous as Michelangelo’s David, and if you’ve ever seen it, you’ll know why. This masterpiece of the Renaissance period was completed by Michelangelo when he was just 29 years old. The marble block had been sitting around for forty years before Michelangelo started work on the David. Two artists had attempted to sculpt the marble, but abandoned their plans because of a flaw in the block. Michelangelo managed to work around the flaw and create the most famous sculpture in the world. Today, over eight million people visit the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence every year so they can marvel at his David.

A couple of weeks ago I picked up one of my dad’s old history books as I was examining some books on a shelf in our house. Ever heard of “The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone. This is an excellent biography of Michelangelo Buonarroti, the celebrated 15th century Florentine sculptor. You may remember the name of the author because Stone wrote another famous biography about Vincent Van Gogh entitled “Lust of Life”. 

What an incredible time it must have been in Florence during the Italian Renaissance under the wing of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici). Lorenzo was the de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic and a powerful patron of the arts. He sponsored a stable of great artists and poets including Piero and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo who lived under his roof for three years, dining at the family table and participating in discussions with statesmen and philosophers.

At the end of Lorenzo’s life, Florence came under the influence of that mad puritan fanatic, the Dominican friar and preacher Girolamo Savonarola who later clashed with the Borgia pope, Alexander VI. He demanded new laws against vice and laxity in the town and denounced Renaissance art. In 1497, he had carnival masks, mirrors, ornaments, nude statues and indecent books and pictures burned in his famous ‘bonfire of the vanities’. After Lorenzo’s death in 1492, Savonarola took over establishing a democratic government in Florence. The Medici were driven out and the city of God attempted to reform Italy and the church.

Savonarola’s triumph was too great not to arouse jealousy and hatred. A new political party was formed to oppose Savonarola and Alexander VI invited him to Rome to pronounce his prophesies before the Vatican. But Savonarola avoided the trap and pleaded illness. As Savonarola’s prestige increased, the Pope tried again to win him over by offering him a cardinal’s hat. Savonarola replied: “A red hat. I want a hat of blood.” Powerful enemies continued to plot against him and eventually gained enough support to have him excommunicated. He was put to death on May 23, 1498 in the Piazza della Signoria along with his most ardent followers, Fra Dominico and Fra Salvestro. You may remember the scene of Savonarola being burned at the stake in the television drama series “The Borgias”. Today, there is renewed interest in the Italian Renaissance with the release of the new drama series “Leonardo” starring Aidan Turner of Poldark fame. 

In Stone’s book there is a description of the famous party of the Company of the Cauldron to celebrate Michelangelo’s good fortune in getting the commission for the David sculpture. Michelangelo overhears Leonardo declaring that “sculpture is so much less intellectual than painting… I spent years at it and I tell you from experience that painting is far more difficult and reaches greater perfection.” Stone writes: “Michelangelo felt his spine stiffen. He glanced over his shoulder. Leonardo’s back was to him. Again a rage rose in his bowels. He yearned to spin Leonardo around, smash him in his beautiful face with the sculptor’s fist he held in such contempt. Then quickly he moved to the other end of the room, hurt not only for himself but for all the marble carvers. One day he would make Leonardo eat those words.” Not all was peace and joy among those fabled Florentine artists, there were also great passions and jealousies.

Later in life, Michelangelo quarrelled with Pope Julius II, the warrior Pope, who wanted him to create a bronze statue of himself. Michelangelo didn’t want to do it, because he felt he knew nothing about making a mold for a bronze statue. He struggled with the 11-foot-bronze, but finally completed it to the satisfaction of the Holy Father. Unfortunately, the bronze was later sacrificed in the war with Bologna and ended up as part of a canon in the city’s defences. After the bronze, Julius refused to allow Michelangelo to return to his beloved marble carvings and hired him to do the impossible: paint the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Again he protested that painting was not his thing, but Julius forced him to accept the commission. It took Michelangelo four years working alone to complete all the Old Testament scenes and still he struggled in his relationship with the Pope. He had originally been hired to sculpt a mausoleum for the Holy Father after his death – a large statue of Moses and numerous biblical characters – to be installed in St. Peter’s Basilica but the project was delayed for years. The quarrels with Pope Julius II adds zest to Stone’s novel.

Another interesting chapter in the book has to do with the feuding quarry workers in the Carrara quarry north of Florence when Julius demanded that all the white marble for his tomb come from the neighbouring Piestrasanto district. Michelangelo visited the site up Monte Altissimo in the Apuan Alps and found the marble of his dreams: ‟a marble of compact grain, crystalline, and reminiscent of sugar.” He then spent a year or more trying to build a road up the mountain until his then benefactor, the capricious and spendthrift Pope Leo X interrupted the project due to a lack of funds.

Stone’s biography impresses in many ways because it deals with the sculptor’s intellectual anguish, his struggle to look for new ways of expressing himself through the arduous task of chipping away at large blocks of marble. Here is a quote from the book as Michelangelo works on Julius’ tomb:

‟His David had been young , knowing he could conquer everything he set out after; his Moses was ripe in years, but with the inner strength to move mountains and form nations. These new creatures of his making had an aura of sadness about them, of pity; they were asking the most painful and unanswerable of dilemmas: for what purpose are we put on earth? To live our cycle? To perpetuate it? A continuous chain of living flesh, binding the burden of one generation to another? Before his concern had been with the marble and what he could extract from it. Now his concern shifted to human emotion and what he could portray of the philosophic meaning of life”.

This is a remarkable book about a fascinating and hugely prolific artist, a humble man whose only desire in life was to be allowed to carve marble.

43 – THE YEAR IS 383 AD

The last Roman legions are leaving Britain under General Magnus Maximus, that ambitious and ruthless Spaniard, who proclaimed himself Emperor of Britain and launched his bid for imperial power.

For over 400 years Britain had lived under the rule of Rome. It was a land of grey-walled cities, colonnaded buildings and neat red-tiled houses. There were six thousand miles of Roman roads crisscrossing the hills and dales. Ships brought in glassware from Germany and fine wines from Italy. The lead mines in Derbyshire and the tin mines in Cornwall enriched the population. Tax collectors assessed the crops and collected their dues. Britons benefited from a safe and orderly life under the protection of the Rome and its legions stationed around the country.

As Maximus sailed for the Continent with all the best troops on the island, Britain was left entirely defenseless against raids by the Picts in the north and the Scoti in the west – the ancient Gaelic-speaking people of Ireland. Maximus landed his troops in the mouth of the Rhine and then went after the Western Roman Emperor Gratian. He defeated him in battle and his legions entered Rome unopposed. Maximus’ dream lasted five years before he was defeated at the Battle of the Save and at the Battle of Poetovio by the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius. He was captured and executed at Aquileia on the shores of the Adriatic. His legions never returned to Britain, but took refuge in Brittany on the Atlantic coast of Gaul.

What is surprising is that even after the legions had left the island ending Roman rule, the ancient Britons still looked to Rome for help and went out of their way to preserve Roman institutions for almost a century. Ever heard of the Notitia Dignitatum?

Notitia Dignitatum is the most extraordinary document and appears to date from 428 AD. In Latin, it means “List of Offices”. This was the organizational chart of all Roman civil and military posts in the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. It is one of the very few surviving documents of Roman government. Four copies of the lost original were made during the Renaissance from a copy made in the age of Charlemagne in the 8th or 9th century.

The Notitia Dignitatum shows that the ancient Britons continued to maintain the appearance of Roman control with the nomination of their officers until well into 420 AD. The manuscript goes into detail about the chief civil and military officials of the empire, together with their departmental staffs and, occasionally, their areas of expertise. It lists the names of 46 forts, half of which can be located with reasonable certainty because they match the names from other sources. It includes drawings of the insignia or regimental shield of each magistrate and the fort of each military commander. Remember this is happening some fifty years before the Germanic invaders – the Angles and the Saxons – invaded the island.

42- BURR

In recent weeks I have returned to several of Gore Vidal’s excellent historical novels after I read the extraordinary “Lincoln” novel several months ago and commented on it in my blog. “Burr” is a masterpiece of historical fiction about Aaron Burr’s career in the Revolutionary War and later as Vice President to Thomas Jefferson. No wonder it was on the bestseller list for over 50 weeks after its publication in 1973.

Many of you may have heard interviews with the insufferable “presidential historians” that CNN brings on from time to time to comment on the state of democracy in the US. For Americans, the Constitution is the crown jewel of their democracy. There is an almost holy reverence for the Constitution, the American Revolutionary War and for presidents, Washington, Adams and Jefferson. In “Burr”, we discover just how overrated was the American Revolutionary War and how totally inadequate were those first three presidents. If Former President Donald J. Trump had lived in those times, he would have found those early years to his liking. He would have been able to indulge in just about any corruption that he fancied and to subvert the laws of the land at every turn.

The Revolutionary War was a disaster by any comparison. The dour General George Washington couldn’t win a single battle. His generals eventually turned against him for his sheer incompetence and tried to have him replaced but Washington hung on with support from the Continental Congress and the war was ultimately saved by the French. They arrived with their fleet of ships, their canon and 3,000 soldiers to turn the tide of the war at Yorktown. The only real war heroes were General Gates and his second in command, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, who won the Battle of Saratoga against British General John Burgoyne in 1777, and, of course, Aaron Burr who served under Arnold in his attack on Quebec in 1775. Arnold later became a famous traitor when he went over to the British and Burr was tried for treason by President Thomas Jefferson, who by this time was as mad as King George III.

Vidal suggests that no one believed that the constitution drawn up by the Continental Congress would last more than a couple of years and none of the early presidents had any respect for its laws. They realized that James Madison’s text looked lovely on paper, but the Constitution would be impossible to enforce. President George Washington wanted to be the king of the nation and tried to arrest the press barons for publishing negative reviews of his office. The same happened with John Adams who succeeded Washington, but the worst abuse came from the third president, Thomas Jefferson, who launched an impeachment trial in Congress against Justice Samuel Chase who refused to do his bidding.

Chase had served on the Supreme Court since 1796 and was a staunch Federalist with a volcanic personality, who showed no willingness to tone down his bitter partisan rhetoric against the Jeffersonian Republicans. Jefferson wanted him impeached for reasons of drunkenness and insanity. He asked Vice-President Burr to handle the impeachment trial in the senate after the house had voted in favour of Chase’s removal. Under pressure from Jefferson, Burr stuck to his guns and handled the case as fairly as was possible. One Washington reporter remarked: “Burr conducted the hearings with the dignity and impartiality of an angel, but with the rigor of a devil.” Because of his impartiality, a Democratic-Republican majority voted to acquit the judge on all charges. Hence began the falling out of Jefferson and his vice-president Aaron Burr.

 

Then there is that famous duel with Alexander Hamilton, Burr’s old friend during the Revolutionary War, and First Secretary of the Treasury under Washington. Hamilton had been lapdog to General Washington during the war years and later sided with the Federalists in Congress. He was a political muckraker of the worst kind and he was tasked with destroying Colonel Burr’s reputation in his run for public office as Governor of New York. It is surprising to me that they ever made a musical about a man like Alexander Hamilton. In the press Hamilton called Burr a “dangerous man” who ought not to be trusted with public office and went so far as to suggest that there was “something despicable” about his old friend’s relationship to his daughter Theodosia. After Hamilton refused to explain himself to the satisfaction of Burr, Burr challenged him to the famous duel across the Hudson in the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr mortally wounded Hamilton and was soon charged with murder in New York and New Jersey but the case never went to trial and the charges were eventually dropped.

Perhaps the most stunning event in the novel is the Stalinist show trial of Aaron Burr for treason against the State, a complete fabrication by President Jefferson and his cronies in 1807. After Jefferson had dropped Burr as his running mate for a second term and Burr lost the New York gubernatorial election, Burr left for the west in 1805. While his ambitions remain unclear, his accusers believed that he wanted to steal parts of the Louisiana Territory along with Spanish lands to form an independent nation. Burr’s so-called co-conspirators were British diplomats, Spanish ministers, and even Mexican revolutionaries.

Burr’s real aim had been to mount an attack on Mexico in concert with US Army troops under the command of James Wilkinson stationed in Louisiana. Wilkinson later turned out to be a spy for the Spanish and put in motion a plan to discredit Burr. At the request of Jefferson, Wilkinson produced a letter written by Burr suggesting that he was busy putting together an army to take the Western States out of the Confederation and had plans to attack Washington DC. Jefferson immediately arrested his former vice-president for treason and fed false reports about his plans to the newspapers. At Burr’s trial which dragged on for months in Richmond, Virginia, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall couldn’t find any evidence to prove the case against Burr and was obliged to acquit him for lack of evidence. He argued that Burr had not conspired to break up the Union and had never taken any action against the US government. Despite being acquitted, the trial completely destroyed Burr’s political career and public image.

When one looks back at the early days of the American State, we are appalled by the level of corruption, the electoral fraud, the muckraking, and the greed. A country that invents a posystem as obscure and open to abuse as the Electoral College is bound to be subjected to all kinds of potential fraud and influence peddling. Remember the stolen presidential election of 1876 when Rutherford B. Hayes and the Republicans bought the necessary electoral college votes to steal the election from the democrat Samuel J. Tilden after he won the popular vote. In his sequel to “Burr” entitled “1876”, Vidal describes in detail how the Republicans bought the election with money from the railroad lobby who had gotten immensely rich under President Grant’s administration. Today, we only have to look at the mayhem President Trump caused during the January 6 insurrection and his attempt to seize power by manipulating the electoral college vote to realize how precarious democracy is in America.

Vidal’s novels are essential reading for anyone trying to come to terms with the threat to democracy posed by Donald J. Trump and the blatant partisanship in American politics today.